By LAWRENCE ULRICH
WHEREVER menfolk gathered for Thanksgiving, before the turkey and after exhausting discussion of that seventh-round draft pick from Clemson, the phrase “What kind of mileage does she get?” was a reliable conversation starter.
Heads would nod sagely, but until recently nobody cared a lot. In surveys of car shoppers, fuel economy often didn’t make the top 10 on the priority list.
So now, with interest in the Prius exceeding that in pickups, you know times have changed. While the recent dip in gas prices has some analysts worried about an S.U.V. sequel — Return to Guzzle Beach? — I suspect that most middle-class consumers aren’t ready to bet five years of car payments that a gallon of unleaded will stay around $2. Many won’t be betting on a new car at all.
That makes the 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI a smart hedge play.
This diesel-powered sedan or wagon is frugal on the front end, starting at $22,640 with a six-speed manual transmission. A $1,300 alternative-fuel tax credit becomes a de facto rebate, cutting the base price to about $21,000.
The Jetta is frugal in the middle years, with a rating of 30 miles a gallon in town and 41 on the highway. The tiny two-seat Smart is the only nonhybrid car that can match the 41 m.p.g. rating.
But like many new clean diesels, which meet even California’s tough emissions rules, the Jetta scoffs at its sticker. Hoarding fuel like a mobile Scrooge, I averaged a remarkable 48 m.p.g. over more than 150 miles of freeway driving. That’s the best mileage of any American-market car I’ve tested — gas, diesel or hybrid. I never knew that driving a steady 60 m.p.h. could be so gratifying, and I vowed to try it more often.
Finally, the Jetta should be frugal on the back end. Diesel VWs have historically retained more value than gas-powered models. Diesel aficionados seek them out on the used-car market. Their engines are famously durable.
Among a wave of diesel cars and trucks — whose advanced emissions systems let them meet pollution rules in all 50 states -- the Jetta is the people’s choice, costing half as much as diesels from Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. The VW is also the current champion of diesel economy. And its 4-cylinder engine achieves impressively low emissions without the need to carry several gallons of liquid urea, which helps to cleanse the emissions of larger diesel cars and S.U.V.’s.
Like most new diesels, the Jetta combines a turbocharger and ultra-high-pressure fuel injectors to raise power and precisely tailor combustion, with up to five sprays of fuel for every big bang. Gone are the drawbacks of older diesels: there’s no smell, no smoke, no shake. With 140 horsepower and an impressive 236 pound-feet of torque, the TDI is barely louder at idle than a gasoline Jetta; it actually seems quieter on the road.
While the Jetta is officially a compact, in practical terms it bridges the gap between small and midsize models. The enormous trunk has more usable space than those of many bigger sedans. The back seat is spacious enough to handle three adults in a pinch, with a relatively broad and comfortable center perch.
The interior looks mildly Spartan, but in a German, Hugo Boss way that softens the blow. Handsome gauges and shapely, supportive seats are familiar VW items. All told, the Jetta feels more sophisticated and comfortable than the Toyota Prius.
With all the torque hunkered at low engine speeds, the diesel doesn’t rev to the sporty heights of gasoline Jettas. The suspension is mildly underdamped, meaning the TDI rides softly but seesaws briefly after absorbing high-speed dips. Standard 16-inch wheels and low-resistance tires save fuel, not time.
But compared with a docile Prius or Civic Hybrid, the Jetta is virtually a road warrior. The VW churns up all the passing power you’d want from 30, 50 or even 70 m.p.h. The steering is sporty and precise. Add a stiff suspension and sticky tires, and the TDI would be a credible Euro-style sport sedan, sacrificing perhaps 1 or 2 m.p.g.
The Jetta also brakes like a normal car. In contrast, applying a hybrid’s brakes — connected to regenerative systems that return energy to the battery — is like stepping into a tuna casserole.
The manual transmission is a bit easy to stall in first gear, but you can crawl in second with no need to hold the accelerator, making for less clutching and rowing in traffic. VW’s terrific dual-clutch automated manual transmission — which has been mimicked by Porsche, BMW and others — costs $1,100 extra and brings a 29/40 mileage rating.In my week with the Jetta it became clear that the VW can indeed top 50 m.p.g. if you stay under 60 m.p.h. and treat the gas pedal as if there’s an egg under it.
After my long 48-m.p.g. run, I started over and switched personalities, transforming into a late-for-school Autobahn instructor. Never dipping below 75 m.p.h., flogging every curve, the Jetta still returned a reasonable 36 m.p.g. When I flowed with traffic at 65 to 70 m.p.h., and made no effort to goose the mileage, the VW posted 42 m.p.g. And in city driving, the Jetta hit 32 m.p.g, again topping its official rating.
Yet my thrift was no match for Helen and John Taylor. In September, the Taylors, from Australia, drove a production Jetta TDI to a Guinness world record, averaging an incredible 58.8 m.p.g. for a 9,400-mile run through the 48 contiguous American states. The Taylors used just 11 tanks of fuel over 20 days, averaging 850 miles for each tank.
My test car had a garish hood decal proclaiming that achievement and the rear bumper advertised goodcleandieselfun.com.
More recognition came Thursday at the Los Angeles auto show, where Green Car Journal named the Jetta TDI the Green Car of the Year. Judges included prominent envionmentalists and auto enthusiasts including Jay Leno.
Drive a diesel for even a few weeks and you realize that the supposed scarcity of pumps is an urban myth. More than 40 percent of American stations dispense diesel, so if one doesn’t have it the next one usually does. All those semis and work-crew pickups are fueling up somewhere, right?
For now, the downer is the price: $2.95 a gallon on average compared with $2.05 for regular unleaded. The current price gap offsets most of the Jetta’s 10 m.p.g. advantage.
But diesel prices, which have been unusually volatile of late, may yet return to something closer to parity with gasoline. (For many years, diesel cost less.) Even with today’s high diesel prices, a TDI owner is likely to spend $50 to $150 a year less than someone with a gasoline Jetta (though perhaps $500 more than a Prius owner).
The TDI costs just $700 more than the gasoline model (including the federal tax credit). Just a month ago, the diesel engine would theoretically pay for itself in 1.5 years of driving. Today’s higher premium for diesel has stretched that payback period to some five to seven years.
Since hybrids are the golden child in the public’s mind, talking about diesels necessitates a head-to-head comparison. But I’ve always argued that diesels and hybrids aren’t a zero-sum game. It’s possible to extol diesel’s virtues without dismissing hybrid technology, and vice-versa.
In that vein, if your commute involves tearing your hair out in freeway gridlock, a Prius or Civic Hybrid will still beat the mileage of a comparable diesel car. Diesel fans, no matter what you say on your blog, your old soot-spewing Rabbit will not touch those hybrids’ 40-50 m.p.g. in low-speed traffic. The same goes if you live in an urban paradise and spend 20 minutes driving 20 blocks.
But if you cruise relatively unhindered through suburban hill and exurban dale, the modern diesel has the clear edge in both economy and entertainment value. Even in the city, the Jetta’s 30-plus m.p.g. is a quantum leap over a conventional gasoline car.
That makes the VW a real solution to real problems. The TDI is easy on money, fuel and the planet. It just needs Americans to give it a spin and a fair shake.